“Arise, shine, for your light has come” – Isaiah 60: 1
Isaiah 60:1-6 is the traditional Old Testament reading for Epiphany because of its emphasis on the nations (Gentiles) bringing wealth to Jerusalem—and because of the mention of camels and gold and frankincense in verse 6, which makes it an especially good pairing with the story of the Wise Men in Matthew 2:1-12, the traditional Gospel reading for Epiphany.
Isaiah was addressing Jerusalem, the Holy City. The people there had suffered through the darkness of a lengthy exile—and a difficult return to a Jerusalem that lay in ruins—and neighbours opposed to the rebuilding of the city and the temple. They have been beaten down by circumstances—circumstances that they saw as God’s judgment. Now the time of their redemption has come, says the prophet. They have been living in the darkness of despair, but their “light has come”—”the glory of Yahweh is risen on” them, their God, who has seemed so absent for so long. We are reminded of an earlier verse (9:2), “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined”.
They must arise—lift themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually to begin the work that their God has set before them. After arising, they are to shine—to reflect the light of God’s glory both inside and outside their community—to bear witness to the light that has begun, once again, to enrich their lives.
A few of us may just remember the wartime blackout, maybe? Lights outside were banned. Woe betide anyone who let a chink of light show out of their windows at night. Travelling with no street lights was a nightmare. The rest of us, too young to remember, have only had a taste of what it was like when the country’s electricity supply has failed; we take street lights for granted.
And, we love extra lights at Christmas and New Year. We put them on Christmas trees, hang them from our windows and around our rooms, and wherever else we can think of, to cheer ourselves up during the long nights of winter, and every neighbour and passer-by down our roads. This winter seems especially dark and difficult to find a way through because of Covid.
Darkness for some can mean lockdown, and being physically unable to hug our families. Darkness can also refer to people whose circumstances in life are anything but bright, positive and optimistic. The darkness may be poverty, hunger and homelessness. It may be the hopelessness of a mother as she watches her child’s life slowly fading away because of a lack basic food, clean water and health care. To a child in a war-torn country, the darkness brings armed men plundering, killing, raping. They are afraid that they will be abused, forced to join the ranks of the child soldiers, or be killed.
For another person darkness is struggling with an illness, the aches and pains of old age, losing the struggle with failing abilities and entering a nursing home. For some darkness is the inevitable day when they lose a loved one through death.
Hatred, greed, selfishness, not caring how your actions affect others, alcohol abuse, over-indulgence of food! Whatever your temptation – that is your darkness. In fact, sometimes the darkness can become so thick that we have difficult seeing the mess that sin has made of our lives. There are so many people in our community who live in darkness and don’t even realise it.
Christmas has reminded us that we have another kind of light to light our path through life. As Paul put it (2 Cor 4: 6): God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
I expect some of you know about the extraordinary lighthouse on Arnish Rock on the Isle of Lewis. It was on rough moorland separated from Stornoway by a channel 500 yards wide, a conical beacon, with a lantern on its summit. For many years it shone a light seen by fishermen far and wide. It was built by Alan Stephenson, a member of the extraordinary engineering dynasty, in 1852. For some time, the Stephensons had been working on an “apparent light”, to warn mariners of hazards at sea in the dark. They discovered that glass prisms placed in the beacon, and lit by a beam projected from a neighbouring shore, would produce a light that appeared to come from the beacon itself. Arnish lighthouse was the first one, and placed 56 ft above high water it showed a revolving light that flashed brilliantly every half-minute. It needed no lighthouse keeper of its own. But the idea seems to have been forgotten, and never developed.
Then, one foggy night in 1933 Percy Shaw was driving down a steep winding road. He had made that journey at night many times before, using the reflection of his car headlights on thee tramlines to help negotiate the hazardous bends. Suddenly he was plunged into pitch darkness. The reassuring reflective light was no longer there, the tramlines had been taken up for repair. Then out of the swirling fog he noticed two points of light, the eyes of a cat on a fence, and realised that a reflecting device fitted into road surfaces could improve road safety. After many trials Percy took out patents on his invention, and in 1935 “Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd” was formed with him as its managing Director. “Cats Eyes” had been invented on the same principle as Stephenson’s Arnish Rock over 80 years before.
The Christmas star, like all stars including our own Sun, was an original source of light. But when the wise men bowed before Jesus, they realised that the brilliance of the star they had followed was nothing compared to the light that God has sent at Christmas. God wants his light to be reflected in our homes and in our lives. Are we unwilling or unable to share it? God wants each of us to mirror that light, like the moon mirrors the sun in the night sky. We were created to be reflectors so that those who meet us can see the right way to live and behave.
When the “glory of the Lord” has risen upon us, and only then, power comes! Paul again expresses this truth in 2 Corinthians (3: 18): “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” We are made to reflect God’s light as if it is ours, like the moon, like Arnish Lighthouse.
The Light, Jesus, has come into the world for us, to sweep out the dirt in those dark corners of our lives, and to bring the healing and reconciliation we long for:
• He is forgiveness. • He is hope. • He is encouragement. • He is a free gift of love.
He is what we need to lighten our personal darkness. He is the light of life, the light of eternal life. And this light is freely ours. That is why we are celebrating Jesus’ birth, the genuine and unquenchable light who changes things. So, we pray, each and every one of us: “Dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid, and help us to put our hand trustingly in yours, as we go forward into the year ahead.” Amen.